Monday, November 14, 2005

I just stumbled upon this sad little story. Apparently, an english prof has assigned Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States as reading and subject matter for a paper; and, surprise, surprise, he was confronted by a student who maintained that the book is flawed. The prof decided that:

The only way his argument "works," in my opinion, is if he has some fundamental belief that economically underprivileged individuals are basically evil. If that were the case, as he implies, then he'd be right-- equality couldn't exist, and even if economic equality were achieved, violence would continue to plague our society. So I decided to test him. I told him that if he typed out the following paragraph with his signature and date at the bottom and turned it in, I would award him a perfect score on this draft of his essay (he was in the "C" range under my rubric):

"I, [name], believe Zinn is wrong because socially and/or economically underprivileged individuals are inherently evil; that true freedom, justice, and equality can never exist because the world is a dark and violent place; and that those who bear the burden so that the upper class can exist deserve their fate."

I gave him this option knowing that his beliefs in Christianity play a strong influence in his life (his other papers and comments in class point to this fact) and I assumed that laying it out on the table like this would spur him to see the significance of his implications. Well, you can guess what happened: I now have a student who signed and dated this declaration of his lack of faith in humanity in order to buy a grade on an English paper.
Most commententers on this guy's blog have focused on the ethical problems of giving someone a grade based on a signed declaration of beliefs. What concerns me, though, is that he plainly does not understand what the hell he is talking about.

Consider the loaded statement he gave the student to sign. People who think that equality is impossible and that Zinn's utopian vision does not have much relevance to real life do not maintain that it is primarily poor people who are "evil," in this guy's parlance; they maintain that almost everyone is "evil," where "evil" means motivated primarily by self-interest and a lack of other moral considerations. Poor people are of course "evil" as well, since, you know, they're people: the set of poor people is a subset of the set of people.

Secondly, one need not assume everyone is "evil" to believe that utopian visions of this sort are a waste of everyone's time. I'm sure that mother theresa was quite nice. However,even if you believe that a significant percentage of people are "evil" - say 10% - you are led into the conclusion that American capitalism, or some close cousin of it, is basically as good of an economic system as we can have. A small but significant percentage of people who refuse to act except in their self-interest is enough to sink any system premised on the idea of willing cooperation.

The loaded statement this man gave to his student suggests that he does not understand these nuances - note the pathetic attempt to turn skepticism about human motivations into classist hysteria. It is sad that a person who can not sort out elementary questions of this sort has taken it upon himself to educate others in the art of making logical arguments.


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